Directed by Derek Whitener
Music Direction – Rebecca Lowrey
Choreographer – Amy Cave
Set Design – Jason Leyva
Lighting Design – Ken Davis
Costume Design – Victor Newman Brockwell
Wig Design – S. Marcus Lopez
Properties Design – Connie Mauree Hay
Man in Chair – Lon Barrera
Mrs. Tottendale – Christia Caudle
Underling – Doug Fowler
Robert Martin – Tyler Jeffrey Adams
George – Owen Beans
Mr. Feldzieg – Dan Servetnick
Kitty – Sarah Dickerson
The Tall Bros – Tim Brawner and Clint Gilbert
Aldolpho – Hunter Lewis
Janet Van de Graaff – Janelle Lutz
The Drowsy Chaperone – Elisa James
Trix the Aviatrix – Lillian DeLeon
Ensemble – Ally Beans, Logan Coley Broker, Amy Cave, Christina Hoth, Donna Knight, Mindy Neuendorff, Diane Powell, Marilyn Setu, Andrew Bedpost, Steve Cave, Kwame Lilly
Photo Credit: Michael Foster
Reviewed Performance 2/13/2015
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I love the theatre. I love the murmur of the audience members as they take their seats, the hush that falls as the show begins, and that palpable energy that builds between performers and an engaged audience. I feed my infatuation whenever and wherever possible, and have been fortunate to be able to do so at diverse venues from Chicago to the West End to the Sydney Opera House to the Bolshoi. Recently, I've been enjoying performances around the DFW metroplex, both Equity and non-Equity, and have been impressed by the talent that exists within our community. Generally (though there are always exceptions to every rule), it’s unfair to compare smaller local productions to those staged by professional companies, and especially to expect the memorable musical theatre moments those venues are capable of producing due to larger budgets. For instance, it would be unfair to compare The Drowsy Chaperone, currently playing at The Firehouse Theatre, to something running on Broadway, yet I can easily say that Firehouse's production is one of the most memorable musical productions I have ever seen, anywhere.
The script itself is memorable and full of laughs. A parody of 1920s-era musical theatre, The Drowsy Chaperone opens with a reclusive, musical theatre “geek” (Man in Chair) who wants to share a recording of his favorite musical, the fictional The Drowsy Chaperone, with the audience, to whom he speaks as though it is a guest in his home. As he plays the LP, the musical appears on stage, and he continues to share alternately somber and droll comments on the production. The Drowsy Chaperone opened on Broadway in 2006, and won five Tony and seven Drama Desk Awards.
The directing and technical design team for Firehouse's production is exceptional and their attention to detail shows. Transitions are essentially invisible, scenes are expertly staged and timed, and the audience is having so much fun that the show seems to fly by. The designers have also played up the relatively small theatre space. During moments when the audience is interacting with Man in Chair, the larger stage recedes, encouraging a friendly camaraderie to develop. Alternately, while watching the musical within the play on the stage, the designers have succeeded in capturing the feel of big musical spectacle so that one can almost forget the size of the actual space.
Set design and lighting design are inspired. Set Designer Jason Leyva has created a simplistic yet functional set that constantly invokes the era of the musical within the play, through Art Nouveau windows and adorning scrolls. The innovative use of backstage space further adds character to the production.
Man in Chair's space is clearly designated not only by his chair, record player, and musical posters adorning the walls, but also by warm lighting that separates it from the glow surrounding the other performers. Lighting Designer Ken Davis further emphasizes 1920s kitsch by using special lighting when more “mystical” elements of the plot ensue. Dream-like sequences are enhanced by ethereal lighting, and a character who interrupts Man in Chair's reverie is back-lit until a moment of truth, enfolding the audience in Man in Chair's vision.
Costume Designer Victor Newman Brockwell and Wig Designer S. Marcus Lopez must have had a lot of fun designing for this musical. All stereotypes of the 1920s are in full swing here. Sweater vests - check. Drop-waist dresses and sheer palazzo pants - check. Knickerbockers - quadruple check. Stock character types are given costumes befitting their roles, and the actress-turned-bride is given multiple costume changes, in keeping with her role. A scene in which multiple brides appear is fun, as each bride is given a different style of gown to match her character. All clothing appears to be tailor-made for each, with the exception of one gentleman who needs either longer knickerbockers or longer socks. Frankly, there are too many small touches to mention, but suffice it to say they are all inspired and era-appropriate. In addition, though wigs sometimes annoy me, they did not do so here; they were professionally done and, when noticeable, just added to the ‘20s feel.
Choreography is more complex than in many productions I have seen, though it largely mimics the original choreography on Broadway. While strong dancers are the general rule in the cast, I would have enjoyed seeing moves that featured specific strengths of this particular cast, rather than the Broadway one. Still, the choreography promotes a smooth, engaging show with plenty of sparkle, and the cast appears to be enjoying each number.
And this is, I think, indicative of what is most captivating about Firehouse's production - the genuine cohesiveness of its cast and creative team. While this show has minor flaws, there is a perceptible feel of camaraderie among the cast members that then flows to its creative team and the audience. The show has heart.
In addition, the sheer talent of the cast is astounding. They all give knock-out performances, and each has impeccable comedic timing.
As Man in Chair, Lon Barrera evokes amusement with his child-like enthusiasm for musical theatre, evinced through gleeful hand clapping and an expression of pure delight while watching the other performers and a furrowed brow when interrupted by the outside world. The majority of the musical hangs on his interactions with the audience and the musical-within-a-play. Fortunately, Barrera is entirely capable of handling the responsibility, and his wry delivery and vulnerability make him instantly likable.
Christia Caudle as Mrs. Tottendale, a daffy elderly socialite within the musical-within-a-play, and Doug Fowler as Underling, the butler, are a well-matched pair. Fowler is marvelously dour and Caudle’s wistful innocence, teamed with Fowler’s acerbic wit, fit marvelously together. A scene involving a glass of ice water is wonderfully timed. Unfortunately, some of Caudle’s lines are lost when she turns her head, though her facial expressions and physical manifestations (somewhat reminiscent of Lina Lamont in her first talkie in Singin’ in the Rain) help get the point across.
Janelle Lutz as showgirl Janet Van de Graaff, torn between her career and her marriage, and Tyler Jeffrey Adams as Robert Martin, her would-be groom, are similarly well-matched. When I first saw Lutz, I had trouble believing the doe-eyed ingénue is supposed to be a showgirl until the musical number, “Show Off,” during which Lutz seamlessly dons a sparkling, flirtatious, sassy persona and commands the crowd. Though Lutz’s dancing is not quite as polished as that of other cast members, her vocal talents, energy, comedic timing, and charisma are convincing. Tyler Jeffrey Adams’s simpering voice, longing looks, and over acting work well for a 1920s-era actor playing the part of Prince Charming. While Adams boasts a beautiful voice, he particularly shines in scenes where Martin’s dreamy infatuation with his bride-to-be shows through, such as during the musical number, “I’m an Accident Waiting to Happen.” In this scene, he is endearing, and one can see why a showgirl might find him refreshingly irresistible.
Another inspired pairing consists of Dan Servetnick as Mr. Feldzieg, a Broadway producer (see Ziegfeld Follies) bent on preventing his star from retiring, and Sarah Dickerson as Kitty, a showgirl who would become his leading lady given half a chance. Both Servetnick and Dickerson strike a perfect balance between loud and strident. Servetnick’s bombastic expressions of anxiety, gruff efficiency, and intonation remind one of a less-nasal Harvey Fierstein, while Dickerson’s feistiness and good-natured ambition make her dim-witted whininess endearing rather than grating. Further, when joined by the Tall Brothers in the musical number, “Toledo Surprise”, Dickerson truly shines.
The Tall Brothers, a pair of bumbling mobsters disguised as bakers, are played by Tim Brawner and Clint Gilbert. Brawner and Gilbert’s over-the-top skulking movements, barely contained brutal energy, and relishing delivery of their goofy double entendres make these characters somewhat threatening and immensely amusing. Every entrance (and at least one memorable exit) is met with enormous laughter, and though the double speak could grow weary, it never does in the capable hands of Brawner and Gilbert.
Elisa James as the titular character, the showgirl’s Drowsy Chaperone, is charming. James has a rare gift of agelessness. Though I suspect she is far younger than the age of her character, her posture, diction and carriage are convincing, as is her lilting cadence, part Judy Garland and part Katharine Hepburn. James’s succinct delivery emphasizes cynicism, her voice rich and sonorous, making for some particularly memorable vocal numbers, such as in “As We Stumble Along”. Further, James’s chaperone is the perfect foil for all of the other characters. While the others appear to be caricatures of stereotypes, James plays the chaperone as if the underlying 1920s actress is worn out and simply playing herself. This works particularly well during the musical number, “I Am Aldolpho,” which pairs her with a would-be Latin lover; the two are magic.
Hunter Lewis is hysterically funny as the would-be lothario, Aldolpho, and he brings down the house in nearly every scene in which he takes part. Lewis has a beautiful voice but it’s difficult finding words to otherwise properly describe the joy of watching his performance. From the cape-twirling and cane-tossing to his uproarious clichéd posturing as a volatile Latin ladies’ man to the pained indignation and whimpering unease when confronted with challenges, Lewis is side-splittingly brilliant and I hope to see him in many more productions.
The cast is rounded out by Owen Beans as George, the would-be groom’s best man, and Lillian DeLeon as Trix the Aviatrix who is, well, an aviatrix and wedding guest conveniently thrown into the plot of the musical-in-a-play in order to tie up some loose ends. Beans’s spirited dancing and earnest wonderment are appropriate as the stressed sidekick, and DeLeon shines as the glamorous Trix. Her powerful presence and voice are a useful addition to the cast, as is her grace.
The members of the ensemble are all solid dancers and actors. In any scene, each actor is always in character, providing interest and infusing each number with extra charm. Special mention goes to Kwame Lilly whose dancing stands out due to its vitality and engrossing style.
Excellent direction, an impressive technical team, a sparkling cast of talented singers and dancers, infectious energy, and a wry and witty script make this show a must-see. I've neither enjoyed myself so much nor laughed so hard in a long, long while. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that one particularly absurd moment (I won't do a spoiler, but suffice it to say it involves monkeys) struck such an odd chord in me that I was unable to suppress my laughter through two, thankfully boisterously funny, scenes after it. While the extent of my laughter may have been partially a function of my own idiosyncratic sense of humor, the infectious energy of the cast and audience should guarantee a rollicking time for all.
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE
The Firehouse Theatre
2535 Valley View Lane
Farmers Branch, TX 75234
Runs through March 1st
Thursday - Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Saturday - Sunday at 2:30 pm.
Regular ticket prices are $10.00 for Thursday nights, and $20.00 for all other performances. Student, senior, and group discounts are available.
For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.thefirehousetheatre.com, or call the box office at 972-620-3747.